RESEARCH MISCONDUCT IN SCIENCE AT THE UNIVERSITY OF SYDNEY: WHAT IS TO BE DONE?
- Who’s job is it to ensure competence and integrity in science at the University of Sydney? Why is the University promoting false information on the origins of obesity and T2-diabetes, together the biggest public-health challenge of our times?
- Why is Vice-Chancellor Dr Michael Spence defending an error-ridden, self-published paper – featuring a factually incorrect “finding” – as serious “peer reviewed” science? What is the appropriate role of falsified data in “peer reviewed” science? Why is the University pretending its system of quality control is working well?
- Why is the University falsely exonerating added sugar as a menace to public health while operating a pro-sugar business that for a chunky fee quietly stamps low-GI sugar and sugary products as Healthy? Why is the University not properly managing its serious conflicts of interest in this matter?
- Is the University’s Senate comfortable with this episode of “research misconduct” (see Section 1), as defined by National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC)? A Fellow of the Senate recently told me that I am right on this matter and the University is wrong. Dr Rosemary Stanton agrees that the paper’s main results are “incorrect” (Section 7).
- In response to the University of Sydney’s disingenuous defence of its in-house research misconduct, the NHMRC in my opinion should suspend the University’s research funding, until a credible system of competent quality control is introduced, a system that can be trusted to nip incompetent self-published scientific papers in the bud.
- So too, the Group of Eight should consider suspending the University of Sydney from its midst, until it shows it can be trusted not to bring disrepute to the trying-to-be-prestigious group.
INTRODUCTION Welcome to the mid-2013 revamp of the Australian Paradox website. The main news in 2013 so far is that the NHMRC’s new Australian Dietary Guidelines in February featured tougher advice against added sugar: try not to eat it or drink it! That move was in response to new, stronger scientific evidence that added sugar – especially in softdrinks – is a key driver of obesity.
The NHMRC’s anti-sugar assessment represents a serious blow to the scientific credibility of the pro-sugar University of Sydney (see #28 on the left). Unfortunately, the University’s negligent pro-sugar Australian Paradox paper (#22) has not yet been corrected or retracted. Its main “finding” collapses under basic scrutiny, yet it’s being used by the highly conflicted University to falsely exonerate sugar as a health hazard, and continues to misinform critical debates on public health.
Disturbingly, the paper was used again a week ago to inadvertently mislead Federal Parliament on the link between sugar consumption and obesity: 3 June; 6.25min at http://www.youtube.com/watchv=wIMocNa9K8w&feature=youtu.be So too, the unreliable Dietitians Association of Australia (DAA) still promotes the flagrantly false claim of “an inverse relationship” between sugar consumption and obesity: http://daa.asn.au/for-the-media/hot-topics-in-nutrition/sugar-and-obesity/
Hello, my name is Rory Robertson. I’ve been a professional economist for a quarter of a century (#9, #13 and #14). My surprising detour into local nutrition “science” began in 2011, after I stumbled over high-profile nutritionists actively promoting sugar as yummy but harmless, even Healthy (Slides 11-12 in #22). Later that day, I discovered the Australian Paradox paper (Slides 7-10, 13-19). Until then, I had (naively) assumed that universities and science journals have strict quality controls in place to ensure only competent investigations and valid results are published. Oops!
Readers, my strongest view remains that reliable dietary information is critical in the global fight against obesity and diabetes, together as “diabesity” the greatest public-health challenge of our times. This website exists to document the fact that seriously false information on diet and diabesity is being promoted by high-profile University of Sydney scientists, with the University’s conflicted senior management disingenuously defending its scientists’ self-published nonsense (#19).
My conspicuous lack of success in securing the correction or retraction of the negligent Australian Paradox paper has encouraged me to try to express my concerns more clearly. Accordingly, I note that “research misconduct” as defined in the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research includes “serious consequences, such as false information on the public record”. In Section 1, below, I argue this Australian Paradox episode constitutes a serious breach of that formal code of conduct by both the University of Sydney’s influential scientists and its senior management.
What we know for sure is that the quality-control process in this episode has been clownish. We know that because the paper and its reckless defence feature a series of serious-yet-obvious errors, as documented in many of those 33 PDF documents on your left. Amusingly, the University has claimed that quality control involved “internationally accepted standard practice” (#19), despite being aware that the lead author – Professor Jennie Brand-Miller – and the “Guest Editor” of the publishing journal – Professor Jennie Brand-Miller – are the same person! Umm, is that really standard practice?
Readers, how’s your competence in Year-4 school maths? For those concerned that the University’s scholarship in this episode cannot be as incompetent as I am saying, please scroll down to consider the following published errors: (i) “300 per cent” – the correct figure is 200 per cent (Section 2); (ii) “decreased by 10%” – the correct result is increased – increased – by 30% (Section 5); and (iii) “600 g” – the correct figure is 150 g (Section 8).
So, how did you go? Three obvious errors, right? Readers, put up your hand if you can think of a good reason why those three basic errors should not be corrected immediately, with the authors publishing new formal corrections alongside their initial formal “Correction” back on 9 August 2011: http://www.mdpi.com/
In my opinion, those three basic errors are profoundly important errors, because they confirm that the University of Sydney’s quality control in science is broken. While Vice-Chancellor Dr Michael Spence insists that “…Professor Brand-Miller’s research which appears in Nutrients was independently and objectively peer-reviewed prior to its publication”, the range of published errors – small and large – makes a mockery of the quality-control process involved, if any (Section 8).
Readers, were you amazed – as I was – to discover that a formal journal article by senior University of Sydney scientists could contain such basic and obvious errors? If so, why not wow your kids, your friends and your colleagues. Wait until you get a sense of the ham-fisted scholarship documented in Sections 1-10 below. As a taxpayer, it’s unsettling to think of the vast sums devoted to funding “research intensive” Group of Eight universities, with no clear sign that quality control is taken seriously.
If you are a journalist, there’s a great yarn yet to be told to the general public about the University of Sydney’s self-publication, promotion and false defence of its negligent Australian Paradox “finding”: a publicly funded University has plonked false information on the scientific record and that false information now is poisoning critical health debates. In my opinion, this Australian Paradox scandal is an important case of research misconduct, something the NHMRC’s formal code of conduct (Section 1) was designed to “nip in the bud”. The key issues:
- The main problem is a lack of effective quality control over published science at a prestigious Group of Eight university that we should be able to trust. In particular, the University of Sydney has sought to exonerate added sugar as a menace to public health on the basis of a determined misrepresentation of the available evidence – its pro-sugar Australian Paradox “finding” collapses under the most basic scrutiny (Section 3) – while one of the University’s businesses collects revenues for stamping sugary products as Healthy. Beyond the negligent paper, the University and its scientists in my opinion have failed to properly disclose and manage their pro-sugar conflicts of interest (Section 9).
- This all matters because added sugar probably is the single-biggest driver of global obesity and diabetes: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/17/magazine/mag-17Sugar-t.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 ; the chart in Part 2, and #28. Informative books on this issue include: Salt Sugar Fat by Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Moss; Good Calories, Bad Calories and Why We Get Fat by Gary Taubes; Pure, White and Deadly by John Yudkin; Fat Chance by Robert Lustig; and Sweet Poison by David Gillespie, an Australian public-health champion.
- Importantly, outsized rates of sugar consumption are – alongside alcohol and tobacco - a major driver of the unacceptable “gap” in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians: see bottom row of Table 2 in PDF https://www.mja.com.au/journal/2013/198/7/characteristics-community-level-diet-aboriginal-people-remote-northern-australia
- In its self-published paper - again, the lead author and the “Guest Editor” are the same person! - the University of Sydney claims falsely to have documented “a consistent and substantial decline” in Australian per-capita consumption of (added) sugar “over the past 30 years” – 1980 to 2010 – as obesity ballooned, and so ”an inverse relationship” between the consumption of sugar and obesity.
- “The Australian Paradox” – yes, eat more sugar, and get thinner! The sugar and sugary food and drink industries used that nonsense-based “finding” – supported only by the University of Sydney’s stamp of scientific credibility – as an intellectual spearhead to try to kill Canberra’s draft plan for tougher dietary advice against added sugar: http://www.smh.com.au/national/health/research-causes-stir-over-sugars-role-in-obesity-20120330-1w3e5.html
- Despite being flatly contradicted by any competent reading of the available evidence, the University continues to insist that its Australian Paradox “finding” is correct, and that my correct critique of the negligent paper is mistaken. Australia’s most-trusted nutritionist – Dr Rosemary Stanton – agrees with me that there is “no evidence that sugar consumption in Australia has fallen” in the relevant 1980 to 2010 timeframe (Section 7).
- I’m arguing near and far for the correction or retraction of the University of Sydney’s “shonky sugar study”, as seems to be required by the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research. Perhaps after you read Sections 1-10 below, you’ll assess that I have made a strong case for that remedial action. With revenues from sugary food companies at stake, the University’s scientists and management face an unsettling choice in this dispute, between wearing their white “Scientific integrity matters” hats and wearing their black “Our revenues – and reputations – are at stake, so let’s just just pretend there’s no problem” hats (Section 9).
- For a slideshow of this growing academic and public-health scandal, try my ”Australian Paradox goes to Canberra” chartset used in the Discussion on The place of sugar in Australia’s Dietary Intake Guidelines, Parliament House, Canberra – 29 October 2012 (#22).
- Photos: http://multimedia.aapnewswire.com.au/search.aspx?search=public+discussion+sugar%26%28importdate%3E20121028%29&gallery=PUBLIC+DISCUSSION+SUGAR
Apologies for my “tone” in the discussion below, but after the University’s summary dismissal in 2012 (Section 8) of my reasonable and absolutely correct critique of the negligent Australian Paradox paper – a paper that remains a menace to public health – I have become somewhat less forgiving in my observations.
1. NHMRC’S DEFINITION OF “RESEARCH MISCONDUCT”
According to the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research overseen by the NHMRC, “research misconduct” includes, amongst other things:
(i) “recklessness or gross and persistent negligence”;
(ii) “serious consequences, such as false information on the public record”; and
(iii) “failure to declare and manage serious conflicts of interest” (Sections 7 and 10 at http://www.nhmrc.gov.au/_files_nhmrc/publications/attachments/r39.pdf )
Readers, below I provide what I consider to be strong evidence that the University of Sydney’s senior scientists – Professor Jennie Brand-Miller and Dr Alan Barclay – and its senior management overseeing the Australian Paradox scandal – Professor Jill Trewhella (Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research)) and Dr Michael Spence (Vice-Chancellor) – as a group have breached that formal code of conduct (Section 8).
Readers, please correct me - and be very critical of me publicly – if you think my analysis here or elsewhere is factually incorrect or otherwise unreasonable. Indeed, prove that my basic critique is wrong and you will be showered in the $40,000 Australian Paradox Challenge cash that’s been up for grabs for over a year (#11).
If my analysis is correct – and it is – remedial action is required. As argued above, the NHMRC should suspend the University of Sydney’s research funding until the negligent paper is corrected or retracted, while the Group of Eight should consider suspending the University of Sydney until it shows it can be trusted not to bring disrepute to the trying-to-be-prestigious group.
2. THE NEGLIGENT SELF-PUBLISHED, “PEER REVIEWED” PAPER, AND ITS FOUR “CO-AUTHORS”
The faulty paper: “The Australian Paradox: A Substantial Decline in Sugars Intake over the Same Timeframe that Overweight and Obesity Have Increased“, by the University of Sydney’s Dr Alan W. Barclay and Professor Jennie Brand-Miller.
Dr Barclay is Chief Scientific Officer at the University’s Glycemic Index Foundation; and also Head of Research at the Australian Diabetes Council (ADC), where he appears to encourage the consumption of low-GI processed carbohydrates. Of course, genuinely low-GI and low-GL diets exclude processed carbohydrates; but no-one is interested in Low-GI stamps on fresh meats, broccoli or avocados: http://www.australiandiabetescouncil.com/ADCCorporateSite/files/0f/0f5f0ab9-55da-45b5-9481-89f082333b6f.pdf
Now, the supposedly “peer reviewed” paper was self-published in a “Special Issue” of Nutrients, with lead author Professor Brand-Miller wearing a second important hat as the “Guest Editor” of the publishing journal. That’s cosy. Too bad about credible quality control. Here’s the paper: http://www.mdpi.com/journal/nutrients/special_issues/carbohydrates/ (scroll down).
Importantly, why are high-profile University of Sydney scientists publishing a supposedly profound scientific finding – “The Australian Paradox”! – in an obscure pay-as-you-publish E-journal? I will tell you: the faulty paper would never have been published in a real journal with real quality control. The relevant “Deadline for manuscript submissions” closed on 30 September 2010, and the paper was “Received: 4 March 2011″ (link above). Why was the paper submitted for publication in March 2011, based as it was on outdated FAO data (only to 2003) accessed way back “on 11 August 2009″, some 18 months earlier? Why was the paper not submitted earlier, or the data properly updated?
Perhaps it was submitted earlier, elsewhere, but was refused publication, and then quickly self-published in Nutrients? By one account, that might well be roughly what happened: Dr Barclay’s 2010 Dietitians Association of Australia Conference paper is said to have been submitted somewhere for publication but was never published (rejected?); his DAA efforts then morphed into the Australian Paradox paper – with co-author Alicia Sim out and a new co-author – Professor Brand-Miller – in. High-profile nutritionist Chris Forbes-Ewan offers a fascinating if incomplete account of these developments on Slide 27 at #18.
Adding to the intriguing origins of the Australian Paradox paper, its (final) co-authors acknowledge that “This study was a Masters of Nutrition and Dietetic project conducted by Laura Owens and co-supervised by AWB and JBM” (p. 502). Huh?
Big mystery: whatever happened to those two earlier co-authors? I ask only because if those junior co-authors had remained involved they may have gone to the trouble – before publication – of fixing numerous obvious errors that ultimately were published. Clearly, no-one competent proof-read the paper. For example, would you guess that: (i) Obesity has increased “3 fold in Australians since 1980″ (p. 491) or (ii) Obesity has increased by ”~300 per cent” (p. 502)? Again, which is it: (i) “3 fold”, so up by ~200 per cent; or (ii) up by “~300 per cent”? Actually, the authors’ Figure 1A (p. 494) suggests that (i) is correct and (ii) is false.
Yes, errors aplenty yet Vice-Chancellor Spence has assured all that everything was “independently and objectively peer-reviewed prior to its publication” (#11). On that, look out for the revealing “decreased by 10%” and “~600g” errors ahead.
3. WHAT EXACTLY IS THE AUSTRALIAN PARADOX “FINDING”, AND WHAT’S NOT TO LIKE?
The authors’ summary of the available evidence is very specific: “This analysis of apparent consumption, national dietary surveys and food [beverage] industry data indicates a consistent and substantial decline in total refined or added sugar consumption by Australians over the past 30 years [1980 to 2010]” (My bolding; p. 499 of PDF).
Yes, very specific and also absolutely false, as a growing number of independent observers are aware. Clearly, the authors’ “finding” is contradicted by Figures 1-4 below; that is, four of the authors’ own published charts – each showing a valid if imperfect indicator of per-capita sugar consumption – trend up not down in the 1980-2010 timeframe.
Readers, please scroll down: do Figures 1-4 suggest sugar consumption trended down, or up? Do you “get” what I am making a fuss about? Readers, this is not rocket science. This is simple stuff. If the range of valid evidence points up not down, then the conclusion of down is wrong. End of story.
Source: Australian Paradox Revisited; My trend scratched in for “the past 30 years”
Take Figure 1. Readers, please draw in your own “trend line” in the relevant 1980 to 2010 timeframe. Yes, the trend is up. Not down. Not flat. Extraordinarily, the authors manage not to notice: “…using only ABARE data [in Figure 1], we can conclude that overall availability of refined sugar varied widely but shows no significant trend (p = 0.46) during a period when rates of obesity climbed dramatically” (p. 2 of #15).
Also, the authors’ false suggestion – in the text on Figure 1 – that apparent consumption statistics no longer are available for “any foodstuff, including sugar” is mocked by the ongoing publication of official estimates for easier-to-measure food and drink products, including beef, lamb, pork, chicken, butter, milk, cheese, beer and wine. Yes, counting the amount of sugar already mixed into our food supply is especially problematic, another key fact the authors avoid like the plague (p. 1 in #20.)
I’m guessing that pretending critical facts do not exist never gets tiresome for unreliable “scientists” defending a faulty self-published paper. That’s one reason why Vice-Chancellor Spence is paid the big bucks: to root out underperformance that brings the University of Sydney into disrepute. Well, here we are. Yes, Vice-Chancellor Spence, it’s time to act.
Again, the authors’ claimed “finding” is very specific: “a consistent and substantial decline”. Readers, Figure 1 points up not down in the relevant 1980 to 2010 timeframe. The same is true for Figure 2. And Figure 3. And Figure 4. And the chart in #26 on the left. Yes, the highly idiosyncratic Australian Paradox “finding” is contradicted by the hard evidence in its authors’ own published charts. The “finding” is a farce.
Regardless, our unreliable authors chose to conclude that sugar consumption trended lower between 1980 and 2010 as obesity surged, claiming to have documented “an inverse relationship” between sugar intake and obesity. Yes, sugar down, obesity up – it’s “The Australian Paradox”! Actually, it’s an inadvertent hoax, along the lines of the Australian Blue Kangaroo hoax described on Slide 44 at #18.
Readers, when something doesn’t quite make sense – a potential “paradox” – do you carefully double-check your basic facts and reassess the evidence? Unacceptably, instead of revisiting the uptrends in their own charts – and correcting their obvious misreading of the facts – the authors simply pushed the “publish” button at their pay-as-you-publish E-journal.
Readers, I am outraged that the blatantly false information published by the University of Sydney’s under-supervised scientists on the formal scientific record turned up to misinform Federal Parliament again last week (Section 8). While that pro-sugar misinformation no doubt is appreciated by the sugar and sugary food industries – and tends to be supportive of revenues at the University’s low-GI enterprise (Section 9) – the general public is being misinformed and pubic health is being compromised. In my opinion, this is research misconduct (Section 1), and it should be stamped out without further unreasonable delay.
4. CARS NOT HUMANS CONSUMED A BIG CHUNK OF THE AVAILABLE SUGAR! REALLY? NO.
After the credibility of the Australian Paradox paper was publicly shredded by a report from widely respected journalist Michael Pascoe in March 2012 (links below), authors Barclay and Brand-Miller responded by claiming that my critique is flawed in part because I’d overlooked the fact that cars not humans had been consuming a big chunk of the available sugar via ethanol production:
In Australia, ABARE data…show that ethanol production as a biofuel for transport rose from 42 million litres to 209 million litres (almost 4-fold) [actually it's 5-fold - another tough calculation!] from 2005 to 2009. [Then footnoted] If 100% raw sugar were used for this purpose and the fermentation process were 100% efficient (it isn’t), it would require ~14kg per capita per year, ie a significant proportion of the ‘available’ sugar. Although there are no firm figures for how much raw sugar is presently being used for ethanol production, supplies of C-molasses alone are not adequate, and the absolute amounts are likely to be increasing. (My bolding; p.2 of authors’ “RESPONSE TO RORY ROBERTSON”, at #2).
Awkwardly, the correct figure is zero; sugar was not used in Australian ethanol production at all (Slides 38-48 in #18). Yes, the precision of the authors’ false made-up story is impressive: up to “~14kg”. Are serious scientists encouraged to make up new false claims to defend old false claims?
To recap, my original critique featured the criticism that authors Barclay and Brand-Miller are careless with facts. Immediately proving my point, they literally manufactured a new “fact” - cars not humans are hoovering the sugar. These shenanigans were documented and critiqued by Michael Pascoe: http://www.smh.com.au/business/pesky-economist-wont-let-big-sugar-lie-20120725-22pru.html
In my opinion, Pascoe’s report provides unmistakable confirmation that Dr Barclay and Professor Brand-Miller – on the topic of Australian sugar consumption – did not know what they are talking about, or worse. On top of negligently ignoring key facts that invalidate their “sugar is not a problem” story (like Figures 1-4), they grasped at straws and made up stuff when challenged to justify their “findings”.
Notably, that figure of up to “~14kg” worth of the available sugar was just sufficient – if not completely false! – to “kill” the uptrend in Figure 1. It’s unsettling that the authors made such a reckless attempt – under scrutiny – to rescue their faulty paper (Slides 38 and 39 in #18).
Readers, only after that extraordinarily ham-fisted attempt to twist non-existent facts to advantage did I decide it was reasonable to refer to the negligent Australian Paradox paper as the University of Sydney’s “shonky sugar study”. Was that unreasonable?
On the matter of recklessly promoting misinformation in an attempt to rescue the pro-sugar Australian Paradox paper, please consider the combined efforts recently of the University of Sydney and its business associate, the Australian sugar industry (#20, #21, #24, #25 and #26). Yes, ironically, the sugar industry’s attempt to rescue the now-toxic paper provided further confirmation that its main “finding” is false. Readers, does the chart in #26 trend up or down?
In summary, this Australian Paradox episode has morphed from an embarrassment to a growing public-health scandal involving the authors, the sugar industry, the senior management of the University of Sydney and the obscure journal Nutrients. And all because no-one has been prepared to correct or retract an obviously faulty self-published paper that is being used by the University and the food industry to promote sugar and sugary products as Healthy (Slide 12 in #22).
5. IGNORING KEY FACTS TO EMBRACE DATA DISCONTINUED AS UNRELIABLE, THEN FALSIFIED
As noted above, the credibility of the University of Sydney’s “finding” of a “consistent and substantial decline” in (added) sugar consumption between 1980 and 2010 was shredded in March 2012.
Take Figure 2, below. Readers, the top line shows shows a 30% increase in sales of sugary softdrinks (“nutritively sweetened beverages”). Yes, the chart shows a 30% increase, from about 35 litres to about 45 litres. And since we are assessing only trends in sugar consumption, only the (sugary) top line is relevant. The authors’ misplaced focus on sugarless diet drinks and bottled water – the red line – is a furphy.
Importantly, check out the eye-popping-yet-still-published error: “Food industry data indicate that per capita sales of low calorie (non-nutrititively sweetened) beverages doubled from 1994 to 2006 [correct: from 15 litres to about 30 litres] while nutritively sweetened beverages decreased by 10%” (oops, it’s a 30% rise; my bolding; p. 500).
Source: Australian Paradox ; My mark is the 2004 (not 2003) “peak” in sugary softdrinks
Yes, the 30% increase in sugary softdrink sales suggests, if anything, that sugar consumption increased, not decreased. Embarrassingly, the University of Sydney’s senior scientists got themselves in tangles with furphies involving diet drinks and market shares.
In short, Figures 1 and 2 – the authors’ own published charts – completely contradict the claim of “a consistent and substantial decline” in (added) sugar consumption over the 1980 to 2010 timeframe. So too, the uptrends in Figures 3 and 4 (below) tend to contradict that silly false claim (also see Slides 13-20 in the next link).
Readers, the Australian Paradox “finding” features the authors ignoring the fact that Figures 1-4 all trend up not down in the 1980-2010 timeframe, then relying solely on a fifth data series, the basis of which was discontinued as unreliable by the ABS after 1998-99, and then falsified in the 2000s by the FAO. Consider the conspicuously flat green lines in Slides 21 and 22 of http://www.australianparadox.com/pdf/22Slideshowaustraliangoestoparadoxcanberrafinal.pdf
Readers, how did experienced scientists – diligent researchers wrestling with a “paradox” and searching for “the truth”! - fail to notice the conspicuous flatlining of their preferred FAO sugar series? If the authors had been appropriately curious about their (bogus) “paradox” result, investigations soon would have revealed that their preferred FAO series was artificially flat in the 2000s because it was falsified by the FAO, after the ABS discontinued its sugar series as unreliable (Letter 7 at #29).
Yes, readers, the fact that the false Australian Paradox “finding” relies on falsified data is awkward for Vice-Chancellor Spence and other misguided defenders of the University of Sydney’s “shonky sugar study”. Yes, authors Barclay and Brand-Miller were “a bit unlucky”, in that it may not have crossed their minds that the conspicuously flat green line in their preferred chart indicated that the FAO had simply falsified Australian sugar data to avoid an unsightly hole in its global dataset.
So too, growing numbers of fat and diabetic everyday Australians are “a bit unlucky” if they mistakenly accept the University’s unexpectedly reckless false claim – on the formal scientific record – that sugar is not a health hazard. Going the other way, the false result tends to support the revenues of the University’s low-GI enterprise. Yes, ”It’s an ill wind that blows no good”.
Now that the serious problems with the University’s “shonky sugar study” are increasingly widely understood, the negligent paper should be corrected or retracted. Taxpayers have a right to expect the University of Sydney to protect the public debate from nonsense-based scientific “findings” self-published by its under-supervised scientists.
Rather than conceding any of the problems I have documented above, however, authors Barclay and Brand-Miller have chosen to claim that they have made no mistakes, and that my correct critique is incompetent: “Professor Brand-Miller says Mr Robertson is not a nutritionist and does not understand nutrition”: http://www.smh.com.au/national/health/research-causes-stir-over-sugars-role-in-obesity-20120330-1w3e5.html
Actually, I understand plenty about nutrition. Moreover, after a quarter-century as a professional economist, I find it hard not to notice sloppy, incompetent analysis. It is revealing that authors Brand-Miller and Barclay seem unaware that the core of our dispute was never about “nutrition” or “science”: it always was about simple things like up versus down, valid versus invalid, and the need to correct serious errors in the public debate.
Readers, the University of Sydney’s senior ”scientists” failed to notice that four out of their five indicators of per-capita consumption trended up not down. Thus the Australian Paradox “finding” relies solely on a sugar series that was discontinued as unreliable by ABS after 1998-99, and then falsified by the FAO in the 2000s (Letter 7, #29).
Why were none of these issues mentioned let alone discussed in the Australian Paradox paper? And why were these issues not properly addressed in Australian Paradox Revisited (#15), the authors’ second fluffy attempt to counter my correct and credibility-cratering critique?
6. UNRELIABLE SCIENTISTS’ OWN CHARTS CONTRADICT PET CLAIM ON SUGAR: SO WHAT DO THEY SAY?
Readers, with their own charts contradicting their long-time pet story, the authors “found” special factors to explain why four separate indicators trend up not down in the 1980 to 2010 timeframe:
- For Figure 1, the authors claimed that motor vehicles not humans consumed a big chunk of the available sugar via ethanol production. Awkwardly, Section 4 above revealed that reckless made-up claim to be complete nonsense, apparently leaving (human) consumption broadly free to follow the clear uptrend in sugar availability in the 1980-2010 timeframe.
- For Figure 2, the authors claimed that the faster growth in diet drinks and bottled water somehow offsets a 30% rise in sales of sugary softdrinks. Actually, it doesn’t. In their defence, the authors seem unaware that they are promoting a complete furphy. Importantly, big-sellers Coke, Sprite and Fanta all still have a sugar content in excess of 10%.
- For Figures 3 and 4, below, the authors claimed that growth in the consumption of intrinsic (non-refined) sugars occurred alongside a decline in the consumption of refined sugar. Again, that’s stretching the data beyond what is reasonable. The authors produced no convincing evidence that there was a “consistent and substantial” decline in the consumption of refined sugar (there is none), and made further serious errors when fashioning their preferred story (#4). And it’s a moot point anyway, given that eating either refined fructose – (say) in softdrinks – or unrefined fructose – (say) in fruit juices – in unnaturally elevated doses provides a similar boost to obesity (and diabetes).
Source: Australian Paradox
Again, Figures 3 and 4 show uptrends not downtrends. So the authors were left claiming special knowledge about those various (dated) nationwide dietary surveys, unconvincingly cherry-picking bits and pieces to insist refined-sugar consumption declined. To be fair, the dated snapshots for adults in 1983 and 1995 in Figure 3 actually are agnostic about whether consumption of refined sugar rose or fell, when you look into the nitty-gritty of the data (#4 and pp. 15-18 of #1).
For children in Figure 4, however, the trend spanned by the point estimates from 1985 to 2007 is up not down for “Total sugars”, “Sugary products”, “Confectionery”, “Non-alcoholic beverages” and the other large sugary category of “Cereal-based products and dishes”. Yes, unambiguously, the post-1980 trend in sugars consumption for children is flat/up not down as obesity ballooned (see Figure 4a in Slide 17 at #22). Again, what Australian Paradox?
7. UNIVERSITY OF SYDNEY’S FRAUDULENT DEFENCE OF ITS PUBLISHED MISINFORMATION
Importantly, Australia’s most-trusted nutritionist - Dr Rosemary Stanton - has been scathing about the University of Sydney’s “shonky sugar study”:
“And yes, I agree with you [Rory] that we have no evidence that sugar consumption in Australia has fallen. A walk around any supermarket shows that huge numbers of foods contain sugar. I argue this point frequently with colleagues”; “I have many objections to that particular paper and to the idea that sugar is not a problem”; and “I have expressed my opinion about the paper to the authors … I will almost certainly cite it at some stage as an example of something I consider to be incorrect” (Slide 18 in #22).
Outrageously, the authors chose to ignore the readily available facts – in their own charts! – and instead claim – via a University of Sydney website – that they have made no errors, that their faulty paper is fine and that Rory Robertson is incompetent in this matter:
“Unfortunately, there are factual errors in the economist’s arguments, and misinterpretation of the distinctions between total sugars vs. refined sugars, sugar availability vs. apparent consumption, sugar-sweetened and diet soft drinks, and other nutrition information“: http://www.australianparadox.com/pdf/JBM-AWB-AustralianParadox.pdf via http://www.glycemicindex.com/
Of course, I made no such errors. Critically, the authors have documented no such errors. So where are we left? Well, one simple definition of fraud is “intentional deception made for personal gain or to damage another individual”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fraud
In my opinion, the University’s scientists have chosen to bolster their credibility and careers at the expense of mine. Their approach thus fits neatly the definition of fraud above. Disturbingly, in the year or so since I correctly advised Vice-Chancellor Spence that his University’s system of quality control in science is broken (Section 8), he has allowed his staff to falsely trash my reputation (#26). In November 2012, one of the authors came online to describe me as a criminal “Troll” (p. 2 of #27).
At this stage, I am not planning to sue the University for defamation. But I am interested in understanding who there – if anyone! – is in charge of quality control and integrity in science. And, yes, I would like an apology, right after the University corrects or retracts its faulty self-published paper.
Readers, another couple of questions please: (i) does the chart in that JBM-AWB link above trend flat/up or down? And (ii) is that Green Pool sugar series – a series that was explicitly commissioned, funded and “framed” by the sugar industry – really “independent” in a debate on the increasingly clear links between sugar and obesity? Finally, on the issue of scientific fraud, please consider my “Australian Blue Kangaroo” analogy on Slide 44 at #18.
8. FURTHER “NEGLIGENCE” AND “RECKLESSNESS” BEHIND MISINFORMATION ON PUBLIC HEALTH
In 2012, the University of Sydney refused to concede anything. Indeed, Vice-Chancellor Spence insisted that there is nothing to discuss. Everything is fine, he mistakenly claimed:
“Dear Mr Robertson
I have received your e-mail of 24 May.
On the advice available to me the report of Professor Brand-Miller’s research which appears in Nutrients was independently and objectively peer-reviewed prior to its publication in that reputable journal.
In that circumstance there is no further action which the University can or should take in relation to your concerns.
DR MICHAEL SPENCE | Vice-Chancellor and Principal UNIVERSITY OF SYDNEY“ http://www.australianparadox.com/pdf/SydneyUniVC%20LETTER070612.pdf
Dr Spence’s underwhelming claim that Professor Brand-Miller’s obviously faulty self-published research was “peer-reviewed” merely confirms that the University’s system of quality control in science is broken. That is, the Australian Paradox paper is dominated by clownish errors – including a reliance on flatlining falsified data on the way to a factually incorrect scientific “finding” – yet Dr Spence insists it went through the University’s usual system of quality control.
Where does that leave us? Well, the problem, clearly, is that the University’s quality-control system is broken. Again, a range of obvious errors walked – wearing a dinner suit and a top hat, while singing loudly - right through the University’s quality-control system into the final version of the self-published paper. Was “peer review” in this case non-existent, ignored or just incompetent?
Yes, the University is publishing factually incorrect information and misinforming the key public debate on the origins of obesity because its quality-control system is broken. And Vice-Chancellor Spence is pretending to the world that everything is fine. That is unreasonable, not to say reckless.
Last year, Dr Spence chose to ignore the evidence I presented (#4, #10, #11, #12), in favour of the “There’s no problem” story told by an unnamed “advisor”. So, who is the unidentified advisor who misled Dr Spence before he unwisely and mistakenly verified the veracity of the negligent Australian Paradox paper?
This is an important question. What we know for sure is that Professor Brand-Miller was the lead author of the faulty paper, as well as the “Guest Editor” of the publishing journal. Was she also the source of Dr Spence’s misinformation on the veracity of her own failed quality-control process? Is that what happened? Or did the authors advise Professor Jill Trewhella, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) (#19), who in turn mistakenly advised her boss that the faulty paper is fine?
I do not know who said what, but here is a genuine paradox: the self-published Australian Paradox paper is full of serious errors – indeed, it’s an academic disgrace – yet the University of Sydney is pretending it is top-quality “peer reviewed” science. Why is the University recklessly defending false information on the origins of obesity and diabetes?
Outrageously, in the year or so since I correctly advised Dr Spence that his University’s system of quality control is broken, he has allowed his authors to falsely trash my reputation via a University website (#26). One came online to describe me as a criminal “Troll” (p. 2 of #27).
For those keen on self-published science, try this ~600 g “fact” for size: “Overall, there was a decrease in sugar contribution from nutritively sweetened carbonated soft drinks to the Australian food supply, amounting to 12,402 tons (~600 g per person per year, Figure 6) from 2002 to 2006″ (p.498). Yes, readers, that’s 12,402, 000,000 grams in total over four years, shared between some 20 million Australians. So, dividing by four, that’s roughly 3,000, 000,000 grams per annum shared between some 20, 000,000 of us. Cancel seven zeros and that’s 300 grams per year between two people. Or ~150 g per person per year, not “~600 g per person per year”.
Yes, that basic but revealing error – on top of the ruinous errors highlighted earlier – was self-published in a formal journal. Of course, that “~600 g” figure is wrong only by a factor of four; someone unkind might say that the University’s attitude appears to be that “near enough is good enough” since it’s only public health that is being “sold a pup”.
And how’s this for high farce? Professor Jill Trewhella, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) claims that the faulty paper went through quality control involving “internationally accepted standard practice” (#19). Umm, Professor Trewhella: the lead author and the Guest Editor are the same person! Do you really think that is widely accepted to be credible quality control? Perhaps only at the University of Sydney.
Readers, why is the University’s senior management defending an obviously false “finding” as serious “peer-reviewed” science? Again, the “finding” ignores core information – including the uptrends shown in Figures 1-4 and the chart in #26 – while embracing a data series discontinued as unreliable by the ABS and then falsified by the FAO (Letter 7 in #29).
Disturbingly, the false Australian Paradox ”finding” remains a menace to public health. A week ago it was used inadvertently to mislead Federal Parliament on the link between sugar consumption and obesity (see hyperlink in Introduction). And not for the first time: p. 4 of 5 at http://www.ronboswell.com/speeches/3935-matters-of-public-importance-sugar-industry-8-february-2012 So too, the Dietitians Association of Australia (DAA) - an important if unreliable source of dietary advice for everyday Australians – continues to promote the flagrantly false claim of “an inverse relationship” between sugar consumption and obesity.
In my opinion, the University of Sydney has displayed persistent negligence – a determined recklessness with facts – that has left the public record seriously misinformed on the origins of obesity and diabetes. In particular, the disingenuous defence of clearly false information by the University’s scientists and senior management has been reckless. Again, I view this episode as a serious case of research misconduct (Section 1).
Readers, as taxpayers – the people funding the University of Sydney – we deserve much better. After all, the NHMRC – Australia’s principal health advisor – in February toughened dietary advice against added sugar, going out of its way to highlight the fact that there is no “Australian Paradox” – that is, more sugar means more obesity, in both adults and children: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-02-19/new-diet-guidelines-spark-debate-on-sugar/4526174
9. UNIVERSITY OF SYDNEY’S UNDER-DISCLOSED AND MIS-MANAGED PRO-SUGAR CONFLICTS OF INTEREST
The senior University of Sydney scientists’ main false claims include:
(a) there is “an inverse relationship” between (added) sugar consumption and obesity (#22); and
(b) there is “absolute consensus that sugar in food does not cause diabetes” (#33).
Both those statements are absolutely false. And it is reckless for the University to promote such flagrant falsehoods in the critical debate on the origins of obesity and diabetes. On conflicts of interest, my concern is that the University’s scientists are seeking to exonerate sugar as health hazard, while operating the University’s pro-sugar Low-GI business, an enterprise that charges up to $6000 per product to promote selected sugar and sugary products as Healthy (Slides 11 and 12 in #22). The problem is that sugar, in fact, is a menace to public health (#28).
Importantly, the NHMRC’s formal code of conduct requires any University of Sydney research effort seeking to exonerate added sugar as a menace to public health to properly disclose and manage all conflicts of interest, including all financial links to the sugar and sugary food industries. This has not been done properly, in my opinion.
For starters, readers and journalists should have been informed that authors Brand-Miller and Barclay cannot be treated as objective observers on the health effects of sugar consumption. After all, “Sugar is not a problem” must be their “party line”, because their trademark low-GI approach to nutrition revolves around the idea that low-GI foods (GI 55 and under) are good for your health. Awkwardly, fructose – the “sweet poison” half of sugar – has a super-low GI of 19 – so it must be fine (p. 3 of #19).
Readers, if super-low fructose turns out not to be “just another carbohydrate”, but as harmful as a growing nucleus of scientists globally believe – that in modern doses it is a slow-acting poison, driving obesity, diabetes and related maladies – the low-GI crew will have been completely wrong on the thing that matters most. Someone unkind might then say that Professor Brand-Miller had spent three decades seeking to identify “good carbs” and “bad carbs”, yet somehow had managed not to identify the one profoundly bad carbohydrate – fructose! (Part 2)
Clearly, the continued prosperity of Professor Brand-Miller and Dr Barclay’s careers depend on added sugar – and so super-low GI=19 added fructose – being perceived as harmless in modern doses. That is a serious conflict of interest that should be properly disclosed each time they appear in the public debate attempting to (falsely) exonerate sugar.
In any case, why is the University so determined to exonerate added sugar as a menace to public health (see the various newspaper links on p. 2 of #12), given the increasingly strong evidence in the other direction (#28)? It’s hard to know exactly, but a bit of digging revealed that the University of Sydney – unusually for a largely academic entity – has strong financial links to the sugar and sugary food industries.
Again, Professor Brand-Miller and Dr Barclay operate the University’s GI enterprise that generates revenues – up to $6000 per product - by stamping carbohydrates including low-GI sugar and sugary processed foods as Healthy (Slide 12 in #22). Moreover, joining forces with the sugar industry, the low-GI crew in 2009 helped to produce a new brand of sugar (Google “CSR LogiCane”).
In the US, “Big Sugar” set out in the 1950s to scramble and mislead science on the links between modern sugar consumption and chronic diseases. On the way, Harvard University in the 1960s and 1970s became America’s “most public defender” of “modern sugar consumption” as harmless, its “science” reportedly corrupted by heavy funding from the sugar and sugary food industries (#24).
In Australia, the University of Sydney is home to our highest-profile academic defenders of added sugar in food as harmless (again, see those newspaper links on p. 2 of #12). Interestingly, Professor Brand-Miller’s work is favoured by the World Sugar Research Organisation (see “references” in http://www.wsro.org/AboutSugar/Sugardiabetes.aspx )
Readers, is the strong flow of false information I have documented in this Australian Paradox episode just persistent negligence, or is something more insidious underway at the University of Sydney, as reportedly once was the case at Harvard? Beyond the issue of competence at the highest levels of Group of Eight science, who is in charge of making sure the University of Sydney’s serious pro-sugar conflicts of interest are properly managed and disclosed in the public debate?
10. WHAT IS TO BE DONE ABOUT RESEARCH MISCONDUCT IN SCIENCE AT THE UNIVERSITY OF SYDNEY?
In this final section of my mid-2013 revamp of the Australian Paradox critique, I still have more questions than answers. First, does anyone have a good reason why those first three errors – (i) “600 g” (p. 498); (ii) “decreased by 10%” (p. 500); and (iii) “300%” (p. 502) – should not be corrected immediately, in Nutrients alongside the authors’ initial formal Correction?
On top of the published mis-spelling of my name as “Roberston” (p. 3 of #15), this series of basic and conspicuous errors provides unmistakable evidence that the authors are sloppy with simple facts and fact-checking, and that competent quality control is lacking in science at the University of Sydney.
Given that confirmation of seriously sloppy scholarship, readers may now see the authors as perfectly capable of overlooking game-changing facts, including that: (a) four indicators of sugar consumption trend up not down in their own charts! (Figures 1-4); (b) the Green Pool series in #26 suggests flat/up not down; (c) the critical ABS sugar series was discontinued as unreliable after 1998-99; and (d) their conspicuously flat preferred sugar series was falsified in the 2000s by the FAO.
Those basic but ruinous problems above clearly (i) invalidate the high-profile Australian Paradox “finding”; and (ii) make a mockery of Vice Chancellor Spence’s claim that “Professor Brand-Miller’s research which appears in Nutrients was independently and objectively peer-reviewed prior to its publication…”.
So, what to do? My understanding is that “the governing authority of the University of Sydney” is the Senate, overseeing “all major decisions concerning the conduct of the University”: http://sydney.edu.au/senate/Fellows_biogs.shtml
As I mentioned earlier, a “Fellow of Senate” recently told me that I am right on this matter and the University is wrong. A range of other eminent observers have said the same thing – the difference here between right and wrong is not complicated. Journalists might want to ask the 20 or so Fellows of Senate about the extent to which they are aware of the research misconduct I have documented above. Are they unconcerned about the growing damage to the University of Sydney’s reputation for academic and scientific competence and integrity? Are they – like the University’s senior management – hoping the problem somehow just goes away? (It won’t.)
At a time when the Group of Eight (universities) is putting out its hand for increased taxpayer funding on the basis that “research intensive universities” are special, is the Go8 comfortable with the University of Sydney defending obviously shonky science? http://www.go8.edu.au/university-staff/go8-policy-_and_-analysis/2013/discussion-paper-the-role-and-importance-of-research-intensive-universities
In my opinion, at least one “research intensive” Go8 university in Australia is indeed somewhat special, possessing a special arrogance that allows it pretend to taxpayers that its error-laden, self-published research promoting a reckless false “finding” on the origins of obesity – a result supportive of the University’s business revenues but damaging to public health – is top-quality “peer-reviewed” science.
Readers, I’ve tried to present the facts as I see them. Perhaps you now understand why I’m urging a formal investigation into this serious episode of “research misconduct”. Please correct me – and be critical of my efforts publicly – if you consider anything I have written here or elsewhere to be factually incorrect or otherwise unreasonable.
Of course, this all matters only to the extent that we care about competence and integrity in science, and about adults and kids – both Indigenous and non-Indigenous – suffering under the weight of obesity and the associated uptrend in amputations and early deaths via T2-diabetes. Thanks for your time and interest. (10 June 2013)
economist and former-fattie
Strathburn Cattle Station is a proud partner of YALARI, Australia’s leading provider of quality boarding-school educations for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teenagers. Check it out at http://www.strathburn.com/yalari.php